But sometimes you’re wrong

Yesterday, my four-year old said something profound and refreshing, in the effortless, unrehearsed way four-year-olds say almost everything. She told me, “I’m really smart. But sometimes I’m wrong.” The timing of her statement was exquisite, as I had spent most of the morning brooding over some unexpected wounds and the loved ones who unintentionally created them. These wounds led me down a path of questioning motives and behaviors, good intentions and profoundly negative impacts, and the many ways in which we can be wrong, even when we are smart, kind, generous, and empathetic. Even the wokest among us prove to be acutely problematic on occasion. In the moment I simply responded, “Everyone is wrong sometimes,” but I let those words sink deeply into my own spirit.

The beauty in my daughter’s simple statement, of course, is the space it holds for multiple truths about herself. She acknowledges her own intellectual strength, without dismissing her fallibility, and the skill to do so is both powerfully healing and tragically lacking in Western culture. Too often our fragile egos and a perversely overwhelming drive to protect them gets in the way of doing the most important social justice work before us—the work we must perform on ourselves.

Take me as an example. I use ableist language. Not as often as I once did, but more often than I’m proud to admit. “Stupid, lame, crazy,” are all words attaching negative value to human states of being none of us are qualified to judge. “Crazy” is just a derogatory term for “mentally ill,” “lame” is a word that demeans the differently abled, and “stupid” is a word to describe someone as intellectually inferior to oneself. So if you stop and think about what it actually means to use one of those terms as an insult or as a descriptor, you start to really feel like an asshole. “She’s acting so mentally ill!” Is it empathetic and justice-seeking to demean someone for presenting signs of needing help or treatment? Of course not. This language is intensely problematic, and the damaging assumptions and stereotypes it upholds need to go.

Yet when someone points out that I’m using ableist language in a given moment, what happens? Honestly, it hurts my feelings for a minute, and a small part of me wants to shout out, “That’s not what I meant!” Still, I resist this urge, and I thank whoever is calling me out, because I understand intellectually that my problematic behavior doesn’t make me worthless or unlovable. It just means my good intentions aren’t serving me well through my language, and I need to make some adjustments. I’m an empathetic human being. But sometimes I’m problematic.

So often we seem gripped by an immense fear that admitting we are wrong about anything important disqualifies us from being well-meaning or conscientious individuals. It’s as if the possibility of imperfection lessens the value of anything we bring to the table of humanity, ever. And this dangerous dualism upholds a mountain of oppression and injustice, by preventing us from being accountable for the ways in which we embrace these destructive forces.

When it comes to systematic white supremacy, this dynamic is too prevalent for words. What I need all well-intentioned white folks seeking to be allies to know is this: You are guilty of complicity supporting systemic white supremacy. This is not an accusation of personal immorality. This is an acknowledgment of a devastating ideological poison which has saturated every inch of the globe, leaving no soul untouched, yet remaining largely imperceptible as the air we breathe. Do you ever breathe? You are infected with it. Profoundly. You are not so special or so good as to have somehow magically escaped.

If I, as a woman of color, have to vigilantly inspect my view of self and of my brothers and sisters, if I have to search my language, attitudes, and behaviors, to be sure that I am free of it, then you must fight it from within yourself as well. And you must be willing to hold multiple truths about yourself within your consciousness if you’re going to accomplish this. You may very well be a compassionate human being seeking social justice as best as you know how. But sometimes you will do and say things that serve racism. Are you willing to be called out? Are you willing to acknowledge your problematic language and actions (or problematic lack of action) and make some adjustments?

If so, consider removing these phrases from your collection: “I don’t see color,” “I have a black friend/significant other/child,” “I don’t have a racist bone,” “I have been doing racial justice work for X amount of years,” along with the knee-jerk reaction to deflect blame and avoid self-examination. Instead, try adopting a stance that invites constructive criticism and self-reflection. Remind yourself, “I’m still learning. I’m learning about how much I have personally benefited from a system which violently oppresses People of Color. I’m learning about my contributions to this system and doing my best to reverse them.” And instead of defending your good intentions when problematic words or actions (or lack of action) are pointed out, listen. Because no matter how much you learn about racism, sometimes you will still be wrong.


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Photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash

Wade in

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our children to the Winter Wonderland display at the Maine Mall. The online ad promised a festive array of merry-making activities, and we weren’t disappointed on that end. The massive train table, holiday movie lounge, wall drawing stations, and jumbo chess and checker boards were impressive, all wrapped up in a North Pole Workshop ambiance. It was lovely to exhale for a moment and let the little people explore an open and engaging public space meant for them—or so we thought at first.

Moments after we arrived and set our tiny adventurers free to roam, however, I overheard a comment that sucked every ounce of holiday cheer from the air and pierced my gut with a visceral reminder of the unceasing vulnerability wrapped up in being black. It was a joke, told by a middle-aged white man, to and about the only other Black person in the room. The two men were coworkers, dressed up like workshop helpers, laughing and chatting with professional familiarity and with the pleasantness created for the benefit of customers—white customers as a matter of default, I suppose.

The Black man was tall, his voice was deep and warm. He wore dreadlocks and a disarming smile as he ran the trains, offering peppermints and other treats to children passing by. I was glad to see him. I felt an immediate modicum of relief in not being the only one.

Then the white man called out to him, nonchalantly, “My mother always told me to stay away from big, Black men giving away candy!” To which the Black man only chuckled. I felt my hands go numb and my insides begin to shake. I wanted to respond, nonchalantly, “Then I guess your mom was a racist bitch!” But with the fire of rage steadily building in my chest, I knew I would never pull off nonchalant. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would not end up on YouTube, a screaming, angry Black woman coming unhinged before a crowd of confounded white shoppers, suddenly devastated and aghast at me for exposing their sheltered babies to the subject of racism and to the use of the b-word.

Yet, here my own babies played in a room full of grown people who collectively failed to blink the moment blackness was openly equated with danger and suspicion. Where everyone could let a racist comment slide because it was just a joke, and (under the surface) because the premise of the joke hit a raw nerve of hideous truth, as jokes often do—the truth that white society is terrified of blackness. Which would be funny, in a twisted, satirical, “laugh so you don’t cry” kind of way, if this terrified bigotry didn’t end Black lives on a regular basis. It might even bring a wry smile to my face if race and systematic racism were not violently denied as factors in the death of innocent Black humans daily. But they are. And the blackness that’s so frightening to a society built on the assumed superiority and innocence of whiteness, is the same blackness beautifully carried by my children’s own gentle, affectionate Haitian grandfather, with whom they had just reconnected over Thanksgiving. It is worn proudly by their intensely sensitive, creative, protective mother. And by extension, this blackness lies quietly in the intricate foundation of who my children are.

And before you step in to remind me that it is, in fact, wise to teach your children not to take candy from strange men, let me remind you that the premise of the joke wasn’t, “Strange men are scary / dangerous.” It was “strange, Black men are scary / dangerous.” And whether you are comfortable acknowledging it or not, the fact that this qualifier had to be included, makes the joke racist.

So, this is how I came to stand in the middle of the Winter Wonderland display at the mall, debating whether to become an instant YouTube sensation, and more problematically, whether to create a hostile work environment for the subject of this racist joke in the process, or to be compliant in the silent violence that leaves deadly bigotry unchecked, only occasionally acknowledged by this sort of satirical ribbing which functions as complicity.

This particular incident ended with my white husband stepping in. Having chased our darting threenager to another corner of the holiday playland, he had escaped the pleasure of the spontaneous comedy show starring Santa’s helper. But when the Mr. wandered closer again, he could tell from my facial expression and body language that something wasn’t right. When he found out what it was, he said, “I’m going to go talk to him.” Calmly, but unwaveringly, he explained how damaging it is for children to absorb these kind of messages about Black men. When the white man explained that he and his coworker “joked like that all the time,” my husband just responded that it didn’t matter, because jokes can be harmful. Several apologies were given, and we left to let our children ride the carousel.

But the larger story doesn’t end there. In fact, there is no end in sight. Because, as much as I wish implicit, deadly lies about blackness lived and died in a single corner of the Maine Mall, and that we could all shield our children from their damage by simply avoiding such a place, this is not the case. These lies continue to thrive in the word choices and tone of news anchors, in speeches given by our elected officials, and in jokes told around the table at holiday feasts. And while some parents are busy making sure their children’s tiny feet remain untouched by the dingy waves of the moral crisis still flooding our nation, the rest of us are fighting to stay afloat with our babies. It’s time for more allies to wade in.


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We are not the problem

Experience has taught me that humans notice my brown skin before all else, and see all else through the lenses of what my brown skin means to them. For instance, while walking through a department store with my two young children, one of whom is continuously running circles around our cart and every object within a three-yard radius, the other one banging on his seat and alternately singing and screeching at the top of his lungs, myself at my wits end, trying to grab everything on our list and get out of the building alive, I have received warm smiles of empathetic understanding from those who have been there before me. And I have received scoffs of disgust and proclamations of, “There goes another breeder!”

In other words, as a brown woman living among white folks, I am frequently read as “the problem” in our society. To translate what the middle-aged white lady said about me in the previous paragraph: Since I am a mother of two young children, I must be a welfare queen, breeding for the purpose of mooching off hard-working white people. My husband and I are assumed not to be in a committed relationship, as I am reminded when a camp site receptionist refers to him as my boyfriend, or when a vocal Trump supporter glances pointedly at our family in a restaurant while loudly griping about their own warped, unfounded reality, in which immigrants ruin American values by moving here and having children without getting married.

But weighing more heavily on my shoulders than the constant barrage of casually violent assumptions about my existence being a burden and blight on our society is this: the blame POC constantly carry for our own oppression. At this point in American history, it would take an extraordinary level of intentional ignorance to not acknowledge race as a serious point of contention in our country. People everywhere are being forced to wake up to this centuries-old reality, even if they didn’t want to see it before. But we have a president and a large portion of the population focusing on the complaints of those suffering injustice, reacting to our complaints as if we are the cause of all that is currently wrong.

NFL players like Collin Kaepernick were called “sons of bitches” recently, by the Bigot-in-Chief himself, for daring to protest police brutality and the systematic white supremacy ruling our land. All over Facebook and in everyday interactions, I hear people expressing rage at Black Lives Matter protesters for blocking roads and showing any amount of anger, calling for us to be run over or shot down like animals. Even when white supremacists rise up, threatening our very existence with deadly displays of force, as witnessed in Charlottesville, people of color must share the blame. Can you wrap your head around this abominable distortion of the concept of fairness? There is a side of this “racial conflict” which wants to wipe non-white, non-Christian, non-straight/cis/patriarchy-worshipers off the face of the planet, and there is side standing up and refusing to let that happen. And both sides are seen as equally at fault for any violence that this “conflict” creates–the conflict over whether or not I have the right to exist. The length to which this white supremacist society will go in order to absolve itself of any responsibility for the destruction it creates defies the limits of logic and human decency.

The absurdity even bleeds into progressive circles, where POC are asked to defend our motivation in standing against those who want us dead. We are told that if we hate the people who want nothing more than to our children off the face of the planet simply because our children dare to exist, we are just as bad as those terrorists and just as much to blame for the struggle we are simply trying to survive.

We are always the problem. We are always to blame.

This is a theme tackled perfectly by June Jordan in her devastatingly poignant piece entitled, “Poem about My Rights.” In it, she describes many ways in which rape occurs. On international, intranational, community-wide, and intimate, personal levels, people are constantly oppressed and violated, simply because of our existence, non-compliant as it is with social standards of normalcy–white, straight, westernized, carefully dressed. Jordan righteously rages over the blame leveled on the disenfranchised for our own exploitation, saying:*

I have been raped

be-

cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age

the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the

wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic

the wrong sartorial I

I have been the meaning of rape

I have been the problem everyone seeks to

eliminate by forced

penetration

In other words, I know this play like the back of my hand. First, you violate my right to be. Nation-states, government agencies, social majorities, men who are physically stronger than me–you overpower me and take away my right to say, “No!” Then, you tell me it was my own fault for dressing or being a certain way that you just don’t like. You make me the problem to justify your own crimes against me and absolve yourself from the guilt. Jordan brings her indictment against continuous human predation to a magnificent crescendo, asserting, “I am not Wrong; Wrong is not my name.” In other words, “Yes. Something is most certainly fucked up, here. But the fucked up thing is not my existence, and I will not let your misplaced blame shackle me any longer.”

I have been thinking about this poem a lot lately. It seems to settle more deeply into my bones with each passing day, with each new wave of blame crashing over Black and brown communities, poised to finally drown marginalized groups everywhere. I was thinking about it the other day in the pediatrician’s office when I was given a form to fill out about our family dynamics, and I had to come up with a response for how often I’ve been feeling hopeless or depressed. I didn’t have room to write “Of course I fight hopelessness and depression every damn day. I’m a Black woman living in a white supremacist nation-state. The logical, human response to the constant psychological violence we face is hopelessness and depression. And, guess what? My response to rampant social cannibalism, to this accepted and applauded destruction and demonizing of the disenfranchised, is not the thing that’s wrong here. My hopelessness is not the problem that desperately needs to be addressed.”

Instead, I circled an option to indicate slight to moderate hopelessness and added, “Since the election.” That part was bullshit. White supremacy has ruled this land since long before Donald Trump took his first breath. But the election briefly sums up for me everything that is wrong and has been wrong with this nation since its inception: Namely, the systematic dehumanization and exploitation of non-white, non-normative human beings for the benefit of the socially privileged, and the blame placed on us for our own oppression, and all the evils that flow from it.

The checkup happened, my kids got their flu shots, and when screams of outrage from my smallest ensued, I was assured they would be given stickers at the front of the office. They were not. Instead, as I nailed down the next appointment, making a casual remark about how quickly the year has flown by, I received a monologue from the receptionist about how she has no choice but to work, her pay rate won’t keep up with the cost of living, and that it’s just the world we’re living in today. I hustled our crew out to the minivan, sifting through the woman’s response, trying to decode it. Perhaps she is a progressive working woman, discouraged that the minimum wage is lagging behind inflation rates. Or maybe she sees me dressed in leggings and a stained tunic, not wearing a wedding ring, struggling to get through the door with my two young children, both of whom are insured through the state, three minutes late for our appointment, complaining about the election results, and she thinks, “Here comes another breeder!”

I wanted to tell her that my wedding ring hasn’t fit since my second pregnancy, and I just haven’t found the time to have it resized. I wanted to tell her that I work my ass off as a mother of two, and that, while we can’t afford childcare, I do babysit and write to help our family make ends meet; it’s just not always consistent and not enough income to insure my children. I wanted to show her degrees and certificates and make her see how, although I am most definitely a mess who struggles to keep herself dressed and get to my children’s appointments on time, I have worked hard for the recognition I rarely get, and I make contributions to my community. I wanted to defend my right to exist.

But I why should I have to? My existence is not the thing that’s wrong, here. We are not the problem.

*Lines cited are 92-101 and 109, Jodan, Poem about My Rights. You can read the poem in its entirety at this link https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48762/poem-about-my-rights, from the Poetry Foundation website. And you should.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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